Born in India. His father was a lieutenant in the Royal Engineers attached to the Indian Army. He went to school in England, Northcliffe House Prep. School, Sussex - evacuated to Cornwall during World War II - Christ's Hospital School, Sussex, and The Thames Nautical Training College, H.M.S.Worcester.
After service as a navigating officer in P & O liners to India and Australia, he gained a berth as mariner (rated Master Gunner in the ship's books) aboard the replica seventeenth century bark Mayflower II on her recreation of the Pilgrim Fathers' voyage from Plymouth, England to Plymouth, Massachusetts under Commander Alan Villiers in 1957. The Mayflower herself remains in Plymouth, Mass., as part of a remarkable evocation of the Pilgrim Fathers' experience (Plimoth Plantation), and the hospitable folk of that town have recently honoured surviving members of the original transatlantic crew with honorary Residency.
After a period in the United States Peter Padfield travelled to the British Solomon Islands in the Pacific, where he sailed local craft and briefly and vainly panned for gold in the disused gold mines on Guadalcanal. The island in the late 1950s still showed the debris of the fierce wartime fighting everywhere around the coast and in the jungle. He described his time in the Pacific and the Mayflower voyage in his first book The Sea is a Magic Carpet (Peter Davies, 1959), now out of print.
Returning to England, he worked in nautical journalism and in manufacturing industry until the international success of The Titanic and the Californian (Hodder & Stoughton , 1965) encouraged him to become independent. This was the first book to defend the reputation of the late Captain Stanley Lord of the Californian, who was censured at the British Titanic Inquiry for not going to the rescue of those who went down with the liner. The controversy continues to this day, but it is notable that the two 'Titanic' authors with professional navigational experience at sea before the age of satellite navigation, Peter Padfield and the late, greatly missed Leslie Harrison, are unequivocal in their condemnation of Stanley Lord's censure at the British Inquiry, and adamant that the Californian could not possibly have been the ship whose lights were seen briefly from the Titanic as she sank. This has been virtually confirmed by the recent discovery of the wreck of the Titanic some twenty miles from the log position of the Californian that night - which means that each ship would have been well below the horizon from the other. Peter Padfield is convinced that Captain Stanley Lord was deliberately made the scapegoat for the loss of life from the Titanic in order to divert attention from the real causes of the disaster at a time when British passenger shipping faced intense international transatlantic competition, and to transfer the blame from the Titanic's master and particularly from the British Board of Trade, whose regulations allowed gigantic passenger liners to go to sea with lifeboat accommodation for only a fraction of the people aboard.
The struggle to clear the name of the captain of the Californian has been taken forward by Rob Kamps and Senan Maloney; the latter's meticulous investigation of the facts and theories that now surround them, published as A Ship Accused: The Case of the S.S.Californian Re-Examined (Cedric Information Services Ltd., 8 Chesterfield Grove, Castleknock, Dublin 15, Republic of Ireland), brings the argument up to date. Anyone who can read this book conscientiously and remain a critic of Captain Lord merits condolence.
Peter Padfield's next book, An Agony of Collisions (Hodder & Stoughton, 1966), was a criticism of the International Regulations for the Prevention of Collision at Sea, particularly in the light of the near universal use of radar. It had an impact on the discussion at the time, but its full recommendations were not adopted, and the collision regulations remain seriously deficient, particularly, he believes, in retaining the concept of a 'stand on' vessel which holds her course and speed - leading to dangerous uncertainty when the 'give way' vessel either fails to take avoiding action or delays her action too long.
A few years ago he was sent a book which analysed this continued inadequacy of the collision regulations from historical, psychological and practical viewpoints, and recommended the introduction of a new set of rules, computer-tested and suited to the radar age. He recommends this book,The Fatal Flaw by Captain David Thomas, to all who sail vessels large or small; and in particular, perhaps, to the members of the Safety of Navigation Committee at the International Maritime Organisation, who can make a real difference. For the current collision regulations which originated in the 19th century are, to quote from The Fatal Flaw, 'ambiguous, contradictory, vague, equivocal... [producing] uncertainty and anxiety on the part of the competent mariner... [resulting] in wastefully incomplete use of radar and often dangerously misleading use of VHF R/T, and a continuing irrational pursuit of further sophisticated technology to compensate for improper and inadequate use of existing equipment...' What more need be said? Action is needed.
Subsequently Peter Padfield made a name as a naval historian with biographies of notable gunnery innovators, Admiral Sir Percy Scott (Aim Straight, Hodder & Stoughton, 1968) and Admiral Sir Philip Broke (Broke and the Shannon, Hodder & Stoughton, 1969); followed by a history of naval gunnery and its effect on tactics, Guns at Sea (Hugh Evelyn, 1972), and a history of the iron and steel battleship (The Battleship Era, Hart-Davis, 1973, re-issued as Battleship, Birlinn, 2000); and a study of the great naval battles of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars from 'The Glorious First of June', 1794, to 'Trafalgar', 1805 (Nelson's War, Hart-Davis, 1975, re-issued in Wordsworth Editions, 2000).
A book he wrote on the naval armaments race before the first world war, The Great Naval Race: Anglo-German Naval Rivalry, 1900-1914 (Hart-Davis,1976, re-issued Birlinn, 2005) fired an interest in German history which led him to write a trilogy of biographies of Nazi leaders: Hitler's successor, Dönitz: the Last Führer (Gollancz, 1984); Himmler: Reichsführer-SS (Macmillan, 1990) and Hess: Flight for the Führer (Weidenfeld, 1991), expanded with new information as Hess: the Führer's Disciple (Macmillan Papermac, 1993). All three have recently been brought out in paperback by Cassell (2001) - Hess: the Führer's Disciple further updated in this new edition from the release of M.I.5 files on the case, together with the most recent research. Peter Padfield is convinced that the official cover-up on Hess's flight to Great Britain in May 1941 continues to this day since the peace proposals Hess undoubtedly brought with him to present to the Duke of Hamilton for the British 'peace party' in which he had been led to believe have never been released, nor has their existence been admitted; indeed very obvious attempts have been made to delete all record of these papers.
Other books by Peter Padfield include Rule Britannia: the Victorian and Edwardian Navy (Routledge, 1981, re-issued Pimlico, 2002); Beneath the Houseflag of the P & O (Hutchinson, 1981), a social history of the P & O line in its high days as the link between Great Britain and her Indian and eastern empire; a highly illustrated Armada: a Celebration of the 400th Anniversary of the Defeat of the Spanish Armada (Gollancz, 1988); and War Beneath the Sea: Submarine Conflict, 1939-1945 (John Murray, 1995, Pimlico paperback, 1997), a history of the submarine operations of all major powers in World War II.
He has recently completed a study of the rise of western power and influence, describing how trading and naval supremacy has led to the liberal values associated with the West today - as opposed to the values which might have been expected to predominate had any of the great land powers, Imperial Spain, Napoleonic France, Imperial and Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia overcome the leading maritime power of their day. This expands a thesis he introduced in earlier volumes, Tide of Empires: Decisive Naval Campaigns in the Rise of the West, vol.i, 1481-1654; vol.ii, 1654-1763 (Routledge, 1979, 1981), now out of print.
The first volume of this new trilogy, Maritime Supremacy and the Opening of the Western Mind: Naval Campaigns that Shaped the Modern World, 1588-1782 (John Murray, 1999, Pimlico paperback, 2000) described the Dutch Republic rising to trading and financial dominance in the seventeenth century, Great Britain taking over from her as supreme maritime/financial power in the eighteenth century.. The second volume, Maritime Power and the Struggle for Freedom: Naval Campaigns that Shaped the Modern World, 1788-1851 ( John Murray, 2003) described the final, epic struggle between Britain and her great territorial rival, France, at the end of the eighteenth century, and Britain's emergence as supreme world power in the early nineteenth century. This volume was awarded the Mountbatten Maritime Prize 2003 .
In the final volume, Maritime Dominion and the Triumph of the Free World: Naval Campaigns that Shaped the Modern World, 1852-2001 (John Murray, 2009), Great Britain, challenged by emerging powers in the terrible conflicts of the twentieth century, surrenders the baton of maritime and world power to the United States of America.
The conclusion of this volume is starkly pessimistic: for the global trading system created by the supreme maritime powers demands continual growth, hence continual exploitation of the earth's resources, already seriously depleted and reaching exhaustion in a number of areas, particularly wilderness, rainforest , water table and strategic minerals. The problem is aggravated by the inexorable rise in world population. Only war, famine or pestilence on the grand scale can restore the balance.
Reviewing this final volume for The Sunday Times, Saul David wrote that 'this lucid, passionately argued and beautifully written history ranks among the finest of modern times', and in the BBC History Magazine, Ashley Jackson described the book reaching 'heights of brilliance, combining thrilling narrative with razor-sharp insights into underlying historical trends'. (Fuller extracts from both reviews are shown under Maritime Diminion in the attached 'Books by Peter Padfield' column)
Among Peter Padfield's other recent works are a chapter in The Trafalgar Companion edited by Alexander Stilwell (Osprey, 2005), which analyses the political and social differences between Britain and Napoleonic France; and an Introduction to Voices From the War at Sea edited by John Winton (Vintage, 2007). He has also written four novels.
With his wife, Jane, in Switzerland, April 2002
He married in 1960 and has a son and two daughters. He and his wife, Jane, gave up eating meat some twenty years ago in disgust at the way so many animals were - and still are - reared for the table, and as a general protest at the moral and ecological destruction wrought by intensive farming. They are extremely proud that their son, Guy, is vegan, refusing animal products of any description, a far harder course than simple vegetarianism. Guy has a web site devoted to his consuming passion, the butterflies of Europe.
Peter Padfield gave up sailing a replica 1900 gaff-rigged Norfolk Shrimper some years ago when his children/crew left home. Recently he has given up attempts to master the wonderfully rewarding and ecologically sound art of cross-country skiing - but still enjoys tennis, sea swimming, chess, beer and painting in watercolours.
He is sad at what he sees as the decline of British values in face of the rationalist, libertarian assault on morals and education, aghast at the despoliation of the British countryside (and social cohesion) by governments committed to immigration in pursuit of economic growth, and astounded at the political concensus favouring the subordination of our Westminster Parliament to the European Commission in Brussells. This appears to him a negation of Britain's historic role in preserving individual freedoms from an overpowerful state, in this case the European Union. Readers of Maritime Dominion will recognise the argument.
The author with his wife, Jane, son Guy and his son's dog, Asha, in Switzerland, 2003